Daring, destiny, manhood, lizards

June 07, 1998|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The novel as a form matured in England. Four intriguing June offerings reveal that the craft continues to thrive on those shores. Most haunting is "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy" by Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine (Harmony Books, 343 pages, $24).

Rendell is known for her mysteries, for genre fiction. "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy," however, is a profound family chronicle, a psychological thriller centering on a father, celebrated novelist Gerald Candless, and the daughters toward whom he is so seductive that neither enters adulthood whole. "Violence and abuse aroused her," Vine writes of Sarah, "and she didn't know why." Hope realizes, "I loved him too much ... I loved him too much for my own good."

The conundrum focuses on Gerald's buried identity. A minor character offers a clue: such a man must have done something terrible to a member of his family. Yet Vine's title forgives the tortured protagonist for a crime revealed only on the novel's last page. This is a daring and courageous and profound book, not least for Rendell's ability to chill the blood from page one on.

"Your Blue-Eyed Boy," Helen Dunmore. Little, Brown and Co. 288 pages. $23.95.

This book is no less disturbing. Two eras cross: the Seventies, and the Nineties. The girl Simone who gave herself during a summer in America to a troubled, abusive Vietnam veteran, is now a judge in an isolated English village by a gray, commanding sea. She remembers how the boys she once knew had "grown up thinking life was a personal thing" until "history hit them ... like a storm."

Fat, middle-aged and menacing, Michael turns up on Simone's doorstep. "I'm not going to be kept out of your life anymore," he insists. Michael remains a lost soul even as "the politicians and the generals who sent him to Vietnam have Alzheimer's now." The historical past is the final arbiter of our destinies in this taut, troubling book.

"The Way I Found Her," Rose Tremain. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 359 pages. $25.

This novel seems perversely benign. A 13-year-old boy named Lewis is in Paris with his translator mother Alice. At first sight he falls in love with fortyish novelist Valentina, a voluptuous Russian writer of medieval romances.

Is it Lolita with the genders reversed? "Certain moments in a life are in another tense," Lewis, looking back on that charged summer, tells us. "They are going to become." If it isn't Lolita, it must be L. P. Hartley's masterpiece, "The Go-Between." When Valentina is kidnapped, Lewis' life is altered forever.

In a phantasmagoric adventure, Lewis comes of age - at a terrible price. The consequences of his finding Valentina are both his arrival at manhood and his losing the very thing that alone made that manhood valuable.

"The Best of Friends," Joanna Trollope. Viking. 293 pages. $23.95.

Trollope unashamedly writes domestic novels. This one transcends the complacency of the genre because Trollope refuses to even out the rough edges. Laurence leaves his wife Hilary for Gina, mother of Sophy. Then he changes his mind. "You aren't where I belong," Laurence suddenly tells Gina.

The adults, susceptible to love's "piecrust promises," are the "Life-wreckers," the children, trolling for moments of sanity, the casualties. No wonder Sophy is forever "pleading with someone to come with her in the dark, or to the lavatory, or on a school trip." Out of predictable circumstances, Trollope charts psychological maps of power and urgency.

"Quite a Year for Plums," by Bailey White. Knopf. 217 pages. $22.

This is a first novel, set somewhere in Georgia where snakes and lizards wind up in your bed and the peanut crops are afflicted by the "tomato spotted wilt virus." White's most engaging characters are her aging women, like Eula, who knows exactly what to do with a bumper crop of Mayhaw berries, or plums, and best friends Meade and Hilma.

"Everybody's a little crazy if you get to know them good enough," Meade laments. "Oh, Meade, people hardly ever behave the way we wish they would," Hilma attempts to console her. Standing tall is kind, balding Ph.D. Roger, forever abandoned by quirky women - as White reminds us that one function of the novel is to introduce us to good people.

Everyone survives in this plum of a book, where life is leavened by onions and gumbo and the kindly old dog Bud who crosses his front feet when he's content. Soon you will be attending Roger's peanut meetings and poultry meetings. You will meet dear Squeaky the horse. The hours will pass pleasantly.

"Gain," by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 353 pages. $25.

This is the darkest of these novels. Reminding us that causality redeems the novel, Powers alternates chapters. Some depict the history of the "Claire Soap and Chemical Company," which makes soap, fertilizers, cosmetics and food and is now spewing cancer everywhere.

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